The Embera-Wounaan People of Panama


The Embera and Wounaan people lived unprotected until 1983 when the Panamanian government designated a 740,000-acre Comarca Embera-Wounaan in the vicinity of remote Darien National Park. The comarca is divided into northeastern Cemaco and southern Sambu districts. Union Choco is the capital of Cemaco and Rio Sabalo is the capital of Sambu.

The lands of the Embera-Wounaan are continually threatened by settlers, logging operations and immigrants crossing the border from Colombia. Some Embera families have re-located to the riverbanks of the Chagres on the Caribbean side of the Panama Canal and cater to tourists. It is here that most visitors on Panama tours will see the tribe since Darien Province is quite remote.
The Comarca Embera and its supporters are fighting to stop development that would disturb the traditional way of life such as the long-planned completion of the Pan-American Highway that begins in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska and ends in Patagonia. Referred to as the Darien gap, this controversial fifty-four mile stretch will be the final link in the 12,000-mile highway. A ferry route around the gap has been proposed to eliminate the environmental and indigenous concerns that have stalled the project.

Meanwhile the Embera and Wounaan continue to live their timeless lifestyle, traveling by boat through the Darien as they have for centuries, using the many channels that cut through their land as trading routes. The women wear colorful skirts and flowers in their hair.

The two tribes are known for their fine weaving including naturally dyed baskets and jugs woven from a combination of palm species that are sold throughout Panama and abroad. Another of their emblematic crafts is the carving of seeds from the tagua tree into small rainforest animal sculptures. These are favorite souvenirs for visitors on Panama tours.